Making All Things New: Prompts for Thinking Creatively

This year on Moving Writers, I am dusting off some old-but-wise books on my shelf about writing, creating a tiny review, then considering how one passage from the book can inform writing instruction today, even decades after the book was first published. 

This month, I’ll consider Metro: Journeys in Writing Creatively by Hans Ostrom, Wendy Bishop, and Katharine Haake

Length: 434 pages

Year of Publication: 2001

A Tiny Review: This is a book that has never gathered dust on my shelf. I have used ideas here for lesson plan foundations, tutoring lessons, and my own writing.  The book uses mentor texts before that term became popular. The organization of this book is also wonderful. It is organized by genre; for example, “Essay, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiography, Journal” occupy one part, “Poetry” another, and “Drama” another. There is even a section on mixing genres. 

Then, continuing the train metaphor in the title, each section is chunked by stages of the writing process.  “Riding the Blue Line – Reading” begins each section, then it moves on to “Riding the Green Line – Invention, “Riding the Orange Line – Development and Improvisation,” “Riding the Red Line – Revision and Editing,” and so forth. I like how this roughly follows the writing process without being overly prescriptive, and I have found that although this is a guidebook for creative writing, many of the exercises can be transplanted into academic writing. 

One Wise Quote: 

“Think of a house, apartment, trailer, or other living space from your earliest years, years where you were learning to read and write . . . 

From memory, draw a floorplan of that living space. Then, number each room in the living space, including, if it applies, outdoor areas. For each number, in a list at the bottom of the page, remember a literacy story – an episode, an event, a recurring practice involving learning to read or write.  Examples: Reading ‘forbidden magazines’ in the bathroom; parents reading to you in the bedroom; someone telling you a story in the living room; hiding outside with a book; playing with a parent’s computer; trying to type a story for Mother’s Day; ‘reading’ (interpreting) family fights; doing your first homework assignments . . . 

In a journal, write enough notes for each numbered location to remind you of this story later. Finally, choose the most memorable reading memory and cluster a bit of this experience on a separate sheet of paper.  To cluster, you place the word for the room in the center of your paper and free associate around the word, listing words, circling them, connecting them to the next cluster of thought, word, impression. . . 

To continue, you might choose to write a literacy autobiography.” 

In Today’s Classroom: 

Everyone should write a literacy biography at some point in their lives, and if you never have, I’d suggest trying the exercise above in your own notebook. It’s deeply meaningful work to think about what brings us to literacy in the first place; thinking it through again can inform our teaching. 

For years, my first writing assignment for students has been “The Autobiography of a Reader”. This exercise gives me a fresh opening move for student prewriting. 

When I look at the prompt above and think of it in terms of 2022, a few things come to mind that I might alter: 

  • I would not include the “forbidden magazines” part of the original prompt with my middle school students. 
  • I would include a prompt about reading with an iPad or tablet, as most of our students would have experienced readalouds via devices. (Which takes me back to the Disney books and cassette tapes of my own childhood . . . “Turn the page when you hear the chime ring like this: ping!”)
  • I would include ‘reading’ a TV show they binged as a child. What do they remember about the storytelling in the show? 

This is one of many exercises found in this book that withstands the test of time really well when we need to get our students thinking about memoir or autobiography writing. Here are three other favorites, along with page references if you pick up a copy for yourself.  

  • “Under What Circumstances . . .” on page 99. Invite students to imagine and write about unusual circumstances. The prompts include “Under what circumstances would a gift be considered a threat?. . . would theft be morally correct?. . . would someone dread the arrival of Spring?. . . would someone kiss a credit card?” These prompts get students thinking creatively about story and never fail to get those pencils to the notebook quickly!
  • “20 Questions About the Character in Question” on page 131. Ask students to answer a series of super-specific questions about the character they are developing in their narrative. For example, “Describe a scar – it can be a very tiny one – on your character’s body and how it was acquired” or “Your character laughs at something. What is it?” or “What is your character’s middle name, and what is the brief history – if any – of it?”
  • “The Care and Feeding of Sentences” on page 238. Several suggestions focus on tending to sentence-level revision, including circling the verbs and examining how to improve them, writing a second draft in the style of a different writer, or stretching a single sentence as long as you can take it without making grammatical errors. All of these aim to help writers examine the outsized effect of small choices. 

This book is worth adding to your collection. It is an absolute treasure. If you teach creative writing, every page will be valuable. If that is not part of your curriculum, this will still provide many sparks to get students thinking, laughing, and improving. It will bring sunshine to your winter writing workshop.

My book, Poetry Pauses: Teaching with Poems to Elevate Student Writing in All Genres, is due out from Corwin Press in February. You can connect with me on Twitter @theVogelman or engage on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters to continue the conversation.  

At Moving Writers, we love sharing our materials with you, and we work hard to ensure we are posting high-quality work that is both innovative and practical. Please help us continue to make this possible by refraining from selling our intellectual property or presenting it as your own. Thanks!

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